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Clint Eastwood Built His 67-Year Career on Tradition While Changing the Industry Forever

"Cry Macho" is the latest, maybe the last, film from a director and star who was both a traditionalist and an innovator.

“Cry Macho”

Clint Eastwood, 91, opens “Cry Macho” tomorrow in theaters and HBO Max. It’s his 42nd film as a director, and perhaps his last. (Eastwood was 60 when he directed and starred in his Oscar-winning “Unforgiven,” the same age as John Wayne when he starred in “True Grit.”) Reviewing his career reveals a dual nature about his role in film history that is surprising, but also explains his success.

Eastwood has been both one of the most successful and acclaimed directors and actors over the last half century. His commercial peak came in the 1980s, while his biggest acclaim as a director spanned 1992 (“Unforgiven”) through 2006 (“Letters from Iwo Jima”).

He signed his first contract with Universal in 1954, became a TV star with “Rawhide” in 1959, and landed the role that defined his persona in 1964 with Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars.”

With 50 years behind the camera, he doesn’t have the longest-running career as a director; Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese started earlier and Agnes Varda’s filmmaking spanned 65 years. But Eastwood’s 51 years of directing and acting at the same time has provided a body of work that has sustained itself not by accident but a result of the shrewd choices he made.

It’s a trajectory that owes as much to being traditional as it does to innovation. And in some cases, his innovations became new industry traditions.)

Innovator: When he directed “Play Misty for Me” in 1971, it was rare a move for a star at the peak of his career; among those who followed in his footsteps are Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, Barbra Streisand, and Eastwood’s own protege, Bradley Cooper.

Traditionalist: In his relationship with Warner Bros. (home for nearly all his films since 1976), and by creating a self-contained production team, he represents a rare case of creative consistency that resembles Alfred Hitchcock or even Ingmar Bergman more than today’s film-by-film partnerships.

THE GODFATHER: PART II, Al Pacino, 1974

“The Godfather Part II”

Everett Collection / Everett Collection

Innovator: When Eastwood agreed to make “Dirty Harry” sequel “Magnum Force,” sequels were viewed as cheap gimmicks. (James Bond films were the exception that proved the rule.) It proved to be a smash — and sequels soon followed for “The Godfather,” “The French Connection,” “The Exorcist,” “The Sting,” and “Jaws.” Eastwood parlayed his success into an enduring Harry Callahan franchise that included “The Enforcer” (1976), “Sudden Impact” (1983), and “The Dead Pool” (1988). Today, standalone titles — like the ones Eastwood has made for the last 33 years — are the exception; sequels and franchises are the norm.

Traditionalist: Stars who thrived in the studio era — John Wayne, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson — were those who controlled their images and melded it with their screen work. (All were stage names, unlike Clinton Eastwood Jr.) Social media and the internet make that far more difficult, but Eastwood came to Hollywood at a late stage of this star-making machinery. He learned from it, including how to play off his image with nuance and evolution while sticking to his core audience appeal.

Innovator: Unlike past movie stars, and few directors (other than Hitchcock), Eastwood developed ties with leading critics and cinephiles and festivals, particularly in France. He also became one of the most Oscar-savvy directors, knowing what appealed to members and how to strategically time releases. With four Oscars, plus an Irving Thalberg Award, he has the preeminent track record among actor-directors. His early showings at Cannes came when studios rarely played there, much less enthusiastically. He became a regular, which elevated his image before most U.S. critics took him seriously.

Throwback: One can broadly define a Scorsese, or a Tarantino, and to some extent a Cameron, Nolan, or Spielberg film. That has worked for them. But Eastwood has presented a broader range of genres and eclectic choices among his films (particularly those he has directed) than most. Although a handful of classic era directors stuck to a narrow range (Hitchcock an extreme example), most were generalists. His choice of films has been eclectic to the point of making him impossible to classify. That places him closer to Ford, Hawks, and other past masters.

Innovator: By nature of his age, each film breaks ground for very senior citizen filmmakers to imagine continuing. Though Eastwood got there first, Ridley Scott is 83 and Woody Allen 85, both still active. Scorsese reaches 80 next year. Jean-Luc Godard (90) continues his small-scale personal work. Among actors, Michael Caine — who also debuted in the mid-1950s — at 88 has the lead in “Best Sellers,” also opening this week. Judi Dench (86) is in “Belfast,” and, close to the same age, Maggie Smith and Vanessa Redgrave remain draws. Eastwood got there first.

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